I could see his scruff, smell the stale urine and nearly taste the alcohol that seemed to waft from his pores. But it was the desperation that touched me. And then I heard him.
“Can you spare a few dollars for a sandwich?”
I looked at my husband, he gently nodded, and my heart beat twice. “Yes, let’s go get you a sandwich.”
Confusion. “You don’t want to just give me a dollar?”
Persistence. “No, but I’ll buy you lunch.”
Hesitation. And he walked away.
He was broke. But he was also broken.
It’s all too familiar. My father was a high-functioning alcoholic, which means he was broken, but he kept trying to glue the pieces back together so no one would notice. Instead of begging for change in rags downtown, he was briskly walking to his next meeting in a suit, with plenty of cash in his wallet. But that next bottle of wine was on his mind, nonetheless.
He spent his days working, saving and investing money. And he spent his nights drinking and dozing. His wine cellar in our basement was stocked full of the finest wines, steadily taking his money, time and energy. Weekend trips to see his friends at the liquor store became routine. So did driving drunk.
The tree standing at the entrance to our neighborhood was severed and drooping, because my father rammed the station wagon into it one night after a business dinner. Alcohol, evidently, was the main order of business. He asked my brother, who was in high school at the time, to help stand the tree up so no one would notice it had been hit.
Another time, a police officer arrested him for drunk driving, and my mom went to bail him out of jail late at night. When he later faced the judge, he spat out accusations that the officer was racist. Addiction and denial go hand-in-hand, and the enabler follows or leads the way. We just didn’t know it then.
I called home from college and heard about the choices my father made under the influence. But even 1,000 miles couldn’t separate me from the turmoil my family was in, and I wasn’t fooled: He wasn’t under alcohol’s influence; he was under her control.
When his license was revoked and he was sentenced to house arrest—with the exception of going to work—my mom refused to drive him around; it was our first taste of putting a halt to enabling him. My dad’s primary mode of transportation for a year was a bicycle—something he hadn’t ridden since his childhood in Pakistan.
But even after his arrest and a mandatory routine breath test that he failed, my father continued to drink and find a way home, where he sprawled out in front of the fireplace in a drunken stupor. Finally, on Christmas Eve, when I was home from college, our family intervened. My dad sat down with the three of us—mom, brother and me—in our living room, as our eyes darted everywhere but to him or each other, and we willed our tears off by the resolution in our voices.
We created his rock bottom: He would be kicked out of the house if he didn’t get treatment and get sober. I told him I would personally call the cops if he ever drove drunk again. No more enabling, no more denying and no more allowing the addiction. He agreed, albeit with disdain and denial written on his face.
More than five years later, my dad celebrates his recovery, which started Dec. 24, 2004. My parents’ refrigerator displays number magnets that tally his sobriety: Today marks day 1,917. My dad isn’t a Christian, but he does call on his “Higher Power” daily for strength. And my mom, brother and me have recognized God’s unrelenting mercy, grace and love through the entire journey.
When my dad was in the midst of his addiction, I would pray that God would take away the wine collection. Now, the wine cellar has dwindled down, as my dad’s given bottles away to others. He no longer finds shallow community at the liquor store or swanky bars. His AA family embraces him with a hug, and they know him. He experiences hope, grace and love every day—and he’s the first to say it!
Sobriety is precious; something we refer to in awe, as if a flippant remark could send my dad—send us all—spiraling back to that familiar place where the alcoholism rules.
Addiction doesn’t discriminate, and it doesn’t favor rich or poor. But it steals from everyone who is touched by it: hope, contentment, peace and health, even money. My dad sunk thousands of dollars into his wine cellar. And had I given the man on the street a few dollars, he might have spent it all—presumably the only money he’d have—on his vice.
I can’t help but wonder, though, what was I saving that man from, by not giving him money? My assumptions about his life prompted me to deny him. But even if he had passed up a sandwich for a handle of liquor with the money I gave him, maybe he’d be that much closer to hitting rock bottom. For addicts, finding that place is sometimes the precursor to finally grasping sobriety. While the short-term consequences are appalling—Did I just pay for that man’s next fix?!—perhaps it’s a statement of love in the long-term. I won’t ignore you, I won’t deny you money that I have, and I will believe you when you say you’re hungry.
Then again, maybe he rejected my offer of a sandwich, not because he was really looking for booze money, but because he was holding out for better company at lunch than my husband and me.
Either way, what a difference a dollar could make.
Kirsten Lamb is a writer and editor. She blogs here.